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Mysterious disease is killing millions of bats

In the last few years a mysterious disease has been spreading fast thru bat populations, and could have ramifications both far and wide for humans and animals alike. Bats eat millions of harmful pests each night and the threats to our crops and health get exponential if this predator of insects does not survive this crucible. The disease is poorly understood and has killed over a million bats or more since it started showing up in 2007. The diseases appearance is a white powdery fungal growth on the muzzles, ears and wings of the affected animals.

Since the outbreak was first noted in 2007 in a cave in New York, this disease has spread quickly throughout bat populations in Tennessee, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and even Ontario, Canada. The disease has been studied and found to be a Geomyces genus of fungus which is a cold-thriving fungus. It has been found to grow even when temperatures have reached below 68 degrees. The fungus causes the bat to lose needed body fat, unusual behavior in the winter, flying problems and death.

Since no one knows how this disease spreads, cave management, preservation organizations and the US Fish and Wildlife have asked that all people who visit caves to limit their exposure, and disinfect all clothing and equipment that has been used in any possible infected caves. Some cave access has already been closed. However, even with these efforts, the disease has spread to the Aeolus Cave which has had very limited access since 2004. This makes the theory of human contact as the cause of spread complicated, and scientists feel that both humans and bats can spread the fungus.

This unknown disease is being called the gravest threat to bats, and the death rates in some caves have been well over 90% and have even placed species like the common brown myotis in the endangered species category. This alone fact for the once prolific brown myotis, puts it at extreme risk of extinction within the next 15-20 years. Numbers of bat colonies across the Northern U.S. and Canada have been decimated, and it is spreading to the Mid - Atlantic States and farther. Studies are also being done to find out if the disease can be prevented with scientists collecting information at each site regarding how many bats are infected. Scientists are also exploring a geographical database. The best news for this dire situation is that current studies are showing that the fungus may respond to human anti-fungal treatments and plans are underway to see how to best use the knowledge and apply it to the bats.

by S. C.
25 november 2010, Food & Fun > Nature

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